Free Natural Disaster Films: 03: Supervolcano

As I said before, I started watching movies that are available for free online since I have little access otherwise. Previously, I reviewed Absolute Zero (*1.5) and Night of the Twisters (*2.5). I’m rating these free films based on Believability, Graphics, Story, and Acting. The latter three—Graphics, Story, and Acting—are judged simply:

* Poor

** Below Average

*** Average

**** Above Average

***** Excellent

Believability is based both on the scientific principles presented in the film and on the activities of the actors within the movie. There may be times when scientists generally agree with the basic concept, but the details of how it is accomplished in the movie may make it unbelievable.

* Completely unbelievable

** Mostly unbelievable

*** Moderately believable

**** Mostly believable

***** Completely believable


Supervolcano (2005, BBC) *4.5

Warnings: TV PG, primarily due to thematic elements. Blood/Gore—none. Violence—none. Language—none. Sexuality—none.

Summary: The story is told in docufiction format, similar to Europa (an excellent film I highly recommend, but which is not available for free online to my knowledge). I very much enjoy this format, but not all people do, so if you didn’t like Europa for that reason, neither will you enjoy Supervolcano. Rick (the main character), a geologist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, and his team take note of new earthquake and other unusual geological and wildlife activity in Yellowstone and use their new holographic computer program Virgil to predict what would happen should seismic activity occur in the area of a certain geyser. According to Virgil, in the worst-case scenario, such activity would set off a moderate eruption, which would in turn set off a chain reaction causing a supereruption of globally catastrophic proportions. Though they keep this to themselves to prevent widespread panic as they conduct more research, unfavorable media coverage leads the director of FEMA to pay Rick an unexpected visit. Rick explains to the director what would happen in the worst-case scenario, and further explains that FEMA could do nothing in such a situation. Rick’s team sets up camp in the area of the troublesome geyser and detects harmonic tremor, which indicates an impending eruption. Rick flies to Washington D.C. to brief the leadership of FEMA and, against Rick’s advice, FEMA chooses to keep this quiet in order to prevent widespread panic. Nevertheless, panic, looting, other crime, and massive traffic jams do occur as thousands either stock up on supplies or flee the area. Rick flies back toward Yellowstone, but the eruption occurs before he can arrive and the plane makes an emergency landing in Colorado. Rick’s team is also caught by the eruption while attempting to flee Yellowstone. (Who lives and who dies among Rick and his team is a major part of the suspense and plot of the film, so I won’t reveal that here.) Rick and his brother-in-law seek shelter in a military installation while his team attempts to flee Yellowstone. As predicted in the worst-case scenario, multiple vents (grey eruptions) open, spewing tons of ash into the air and trapping millions of Americans in their homes. As the days pass and the vents show no sign of slowing their activity, FEMA struggles with knowing what to tell people to do and how to rescue millions of Americans. How it all resolves and specifically how FEMA goes about rescuing people is also a significant part of the plot, so I won’t reveal that, either.

Believability:  *****  The movie is based on known scientific fact and on the worst-case scenario for Yellowstone Supervolcano’s next eruption. In essence, there is a massive chamber of magma beneath Yellowstone Park (the largest volcano in the world), which is the source of Yellowstone’s hydrovolcanic features and which experiences a major eruption approximately every 600,000 years. To our knowledge, the last major eruption occurred approximately 640,000 years ago. The next eruption is believed to be unlikely for at least another thousand years. At the least, an eruption would be very minor. At the worst, due to the massive size of the magma chamber, there would be a supereruption. There are two kinds of eruptions: red (involving primarily lava) and grey (involving primarily or solely ash). Red eruptions are the least frightening because lava moves very slowly. However, grey eruptions (the kind predicted for Yellowstone) can be catastrophic because the ash is composed of microscopic particles of rock, which create slush in rain or in the moist environment of a human’s lungs, can become so heavy as to collapse a roof, and may result in a pyroclastic flow (a current of hot gas and rock that moves away from the volcano at up to 450 mph and was responsible for the death and destruction in the Pompeii and Mt. St. Helens eruptions). The worst case scenario of a Yellowstone eruption would involve such numerous and/or large grey eruption(s) as to cover the entire United States in ash (possibly 3 ft deep at the source, though historical record suggests a previous Yellowstone eruption caused ash 6 ft deep at the source), severely drop global temperatures, and kill crops and herds across the globe, resulting in worldwide unending winter, famine, and disease, similar to but on a worse scale than the effects of the eruption of Tambora in 1815, which triggered major snowstorms as late as June on the east coast of the U.S. In essence, the entire movie is based on scientific fact regarding the worst-case scenario and is completely believable. In the film, roofs do collapse under the weight of the ash, killing at least one member of Rick’s team; people find it difficult to breathe due to ash in the air and in their lungs (though the movie doesn’t progress far enough to depict anyone getting pneumonia, it’s suggested as a risk toward the beginning of the film); other members of Rick’s team are unable to outrun a pyroclastic cloud (in Dante’s Peak, for example, the heroes manage to outrun such a cloud, but if you’ve ever taken a geology course, you know it’s impossible to do); crops and herds die worldwide; and the U.S. is depicted as being in a state of unending winter five years after the event.

Graphics:  *****  What can I say? The graphics were top-notch. If it weren’t for the frequent references to “kilometers,” I would have thought this was a Hollywood production. As it is, it’s a Hollywood-quality British film and, quite honestly, far better than any American-made volcano movie I’ve ever seen.

Story:  ****  Initially, I thought it was an American-made production, but their frequent references to “kilometers” instead of “miles” confused me enough to make me look up the production company (in this case, BBC). They also make a reference to the ash cloud causing a “30 degree drop in temperature,” but don’t specify whether that’s Celsius or Fahrenheit. Since it’s a British production, I assume that means 30° Celsius, which is 86° Fahrenheit. It was made for TV, so there are occasional breaks that don’t quite flow with the film, but if you view it as a series of TV episodes, it’s excellent. I fault it only because they don’t spend enough time helping the viewer get to know the characters, and so much of their activity and many of their reactions are not as easy for the viewer to understand or empathize with. I’m not sure how that could have been helped, though, because the docufiction format means that it goes back and forth between simulated interviews with survivors and depictions of the actual events, but since whether Rick lives or dies is a significant part of the plot, they couldn’t depict any interview scenes with Rick. Unfortunately, however, the interview scenes are where you learn the most about how the characters feel, think, and react. I didn’t personally feel connected to any of the characters except, ironically, the FEMA director, who appeared far less frequently than did Rick but who had more interview scenes than any other character, including Rick’s wife.

Acting:  ****  The acting was generally very good, but there were a couple areas where emotion was slightly overacted or underacted, primarily by Rick and by his brother-in-law.

Overall: Excellent. Highly recommend. I’ve watched it two or three times now and I’ve known about it for less than a year and a half.


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